AXIS Performance Advisors

Demystifying sustainability

Myths about Teams (keynote to GM in Mexico)

Dispelling Myths about Teams

Lessons from 15 years in the field

by Darcy Hitchcock, Copyright 2000 AXIS Performance Advisors,Inc.

The following newsletter is excerpted from a keynote address that Darcy Hitchcock is giving to a
General Motors conference this summer in Guanajuato, Mexico.

Courtesy tungphoto,

Courtesy tungphoto,

In preparing for this speech, my business partner and I sat down and tried to list our key learnings. Over the years our own point of view has changed. So perhaps I can help you fast-forward the learning process and bring you up to date with our current thinking.

Before I get into that, though, I’d like to share with you how I got involved with teams. About 12-15 years ago I consulted with one of the major auto makers in Detroit. When I went into the plant, it was a scary place.The employees  told me dreadful stories about how they had been treated by management. Whether or not they were true didn’t matter because the stories became their truth. Things like someone who died on the assembly line and the managers wouldn’t stop the line but just hauled the person out by their feet and threw in another worker. People felt disrespected, not listened to, abused and at the same time trapped by the high pay and benefits.

This translated into two emotions: apathy and anger. Those who became apathetic did as little as they could get away with or refused to cooperate for the benefit of the customer or the company, for example, electricians not being willing to hand a wrench to someone because they weren’t pipefitters. Anger became sabotage or even violence. Some people, for example,confessed to me that they were afraid to go to the parking lot because they were afraid of being stabbed by their coworkers. Since it wasn’t safe to take it out on management, they took it out on one another.

And they vented their anger on me. There were times I was not sure I would survive this assignment. I figured someone would find me upside down in a hazardous waste drum some morning. The executive came up to me afterI had spent three days assessing the operation and asked, “Is there any hope?” And he wasn’t joking. Side-lined into a backwater plant,he had all but given up.

But six or nine months later, things were so different. One work team had resolved a long-standing issue with another team. Welders confronted a worker who for years had been abusing alcohol on the job and got him straightened out. The waste treatment facility asked to become a profit center, recycling the waste oil that the company paid to haul away. The powerhouse team felt so empowered that they put together a 5-year business plan to shut their plant down. UAW union workers saying, we know this isn’t an efficient plantand there are better ways to get you your steam and here’s where we’d like to be redeployed once this plant is closed. Even management hadn’t had the guts to whisper this as an appropriate option.

High-performance or self-directed teams are what turned this plant around. This is when I figured out that “teams” and all that went with them were not just a personal preference for me but a better way of running an organization….more productive and more humane.

But the terms we use–“teams,”  “self-direction,”etc.–tend to  lead people to the wrong conclusions. So in this presentation,I’d like to share with you six lessons which should debunk the most common misconceptions that people have about teams. They are summarized in the table below.





Individual people

Organization design


Management philosophy


Responsibility and accountability

One type of team

Many forms of collaboration



Lesson 1: It’s not about teams; it’s about performance

Too many organizations decide to implement teams because they are the latest fad, or someone read about them in an airline magazine, or their competitors are doing it. These are all bad reasons to get started. Teams are a means to an end, not the end itself. You use them to gain some competitive advantage.

I once consulted with the collections department for a trucking company. That’s the group that follows up when the customer doesn’t pay their bills on time. They said they wanted to implement teams. So I asked why. They said, “Because they’ll get us higher quality, productivity, and happier employees.” They must have read this somewhere. I responded, “True,true. Teams can yield these benefits. But it’s important to understand how teams might fit in with your strategy, how they might yield these benefits in your operation.” Then I went on to say that, from a total quality perspective, their whole department represented “waste,” something gone awry. (Tact has never been my strength, as you can see.)  If everything was going perfectly, the customers would pay on time and the department would have nothing to do. So I asked, “Why do you have work?” They weren’t sure. “Guess.” I said. Well, a lot of the time the customer didn’t pay because bills were wrong, or the proper paperwork wasn’t attached. Also the pricing structure, what they called tariffs, were so complicated that it confused the customers. All these problems represented about 95% of their collections and none of these problems occurred in their department. So even if teams were wildly successful, you’d hardly notice on the bottom line. So I told them not to do teams. Instead I suggested they use their resources to redesign their work process across departments to eliminate the root causes of the problems. They went ahead with teams anyway and the effort failed.

So the lesson to that story is you must be very clear how teams are going to help you and what is it you most want to improve. A number of years ago,the Department of Labor in the US identified new competitive standards upon which business success was now based. Decades ago the competitive standard was mass production, creating the highest number of cars at the lowest cost.But now, other factors are driving success, things like quality, speed or timeliness, service or convenience for the customer, variety and customization.You have to make trade-offs. You can’t maximize all of these simultaneously,because you would make different choices about how to reorganize the work.For example, if you wanted to improve quality, you’d focus on the design process. If you wanted to improve the affinity with the customer, you’d organize around customers or customer groups. If you wanted to increase customization, then you’d organize around projects, assembling a new team for each order.

So it’s about performance more than it’s about teams. Be clear first about what you need to improve and then see if teams are able to help you get that. Teams take a lot of work to get set up, so don’t do it unless it’s a critical business tactic. Because if you do it poorly and get partway down the process and change your mind, you will cause more problems than you solved. More about that later.

Lesson 2: It’s not about individuals; it’s about organizational design

The second lesson is that you don’t have to change the people to get better performance; you have to change the design of the organization. When managers hear “teams,” they tend to think in terms of structural changes, who should we put with whom. Then they think they are done. But they have only addressed one part of the change.

The performance of any system is largely affected by the design of that system. Think  of cars, for example. The driver affects the fuel efficiency very little. Mostly it’s affected by the weight, type of engine, aerodynamics,tire friction and so on. No matter how carefully you drive a Blazer, it’s never going to get 40 miles per gallon.
The same is true for organizations. A little of the performance is affected by the people, but a lot is determined by the design of the organization. Think of a box as representing how much you can get done in your organization right now.

If you want to get more done, be more productive, then you have to push on the walls of the box, change the design of your organization. But here, instead of weight and aerodynamics, we have four primary organizational design factors in this ‘box’.

Processes: You can improve your work processes, how you produce a car, for example.

Structure: You can change the structure, who works with whom.

Authority: You can empower people, giving them more authority, and

Systems: you can change your business systems, for example how you hire, train, compensate, etc.

Pushing on only one wall will only get you a little improvement. So managers who think of teams mostly as a structural change will only get a little benefit. But you’ll find that once you start pushing on one wall, you quickly have to work on the other walls as well.

Let’s imagine for a minute that you change how you make cars, changing from steel bodies to carbon fiber bodies, as with the hypercar. These bodies can be molded to include many parts that now have to be assembled, and the color is embedded in the material so you don’t have to paint it later. Clearly this would change what some people did, so the structure would change. You might combine some jobs or retrain people to do new tasks. To speed things up, you might need to give those employees more power to make decisions on the floor, so you’re not running around trying to find a manager to decide something the employees could figure out for themselves. But if you do that, you’d want to hire people who want to assume responsibilities, which might change your selection process. Can you see how these walls are all connected? Once you’ve pushed each of the walls out, you’ve dramatically improved the capacity of your organization.

Lesson 3: It’s not about structure as much as it is about management philosophy

When many managers think about teams, they think about structure, putting you, you and you together into a team. Moving the boxes around on an org.chart. But lesson 3 is about what’s inside the box, because that is even more important. The management style of the organization can act either to hold the walls in close or to help push them out. We tell organizations that they have two choices about how to run the organization, they can have managers as parents or managers as partners. A traditional organization tends to be paternalistic, where the managers are expected to figure things out and tell the employees what to do, make the tough decisions, set the rules, deliver rewards and punishments, etc.

A parent-manager tends to act to limit performance. I’ll give just one example. In a traditional organization, it is generally accepted that a manager should only have around 6-15 direct reports; that’s all one person can manage…that is, IF they have to make all the decisions, tell people what to do, and write up individual performance appraisals for each person.But in partnering, team-based organizations, it’s not unheard of in manufacturing settings to have 100 or more employees report to a manager, because the employees manage themselves. The parenting managers end up, through no fault of their own, acting as bottlenecks.

This paternalistic style is based on the assumption that managers know more than employees. While this may have been true at one point in history,it is ceasing to be an effective way to run an organization now. Work has become so complex these days, with new technologies, environmental regulations,health and safety issues, labor issues, financing options, etc., no one person can know enough. So managers need teams to get a lot of work done.But it doesn’t do any good to have a team if the manager overrules what the team decides.

On the other hand, partnering managers help to push the walls outward.Instead of trying to control every decision, they give teams clear boundaries and help them take responsibility for making decisions. That increases empowerment and frees the manager to do more strategic tasks. They focus on managing teams instead of individuals, which enables them to support so many employees. And when the employees become more empowered, they are more likely to come up with more ways to improve the process, change the structure, or modify systems. So the box just gets bigger and bigger, increasing the capabilitie and performance of the organization.

This partnering management philosophy has been critical in the US to making teams work. If your executives and managers don’t believe that most employees want to do a good job, that employees should have a say in matters that affect them, then employees quickly figure out that they are really parents in disguise, only looking like partners as long as the employees are making the same decisions that the manager would have made. And then the whole effort collapses.

The interesting challenge is that both of these ways of running an organization,parents and partners, are self-reinforcing. If managers believe that employees can’t be trusted to make good business decisions then they don’t involve employees in decisions. Then the employees get disgruntled and act out which only reinforces the manager’s point of view that employees can’t be trusted.

So deciding to become a partnering manager is in many ways a leap of faith. And if the employees rise to the occasion, then the manger is open to being even more partnering. It’s a dance where the managers generally have to lead but the employees need to follow.

Lesson 4: It’s not about empowerment; it’s about responsibility/ accountability

This brings me to the next lesson. Employees have to do their part too.Employees tend to think about teams and self-direction as empowerment. Some mistake it to mean, “Now I can do whatever I want.” But this isn’t the deal at all. This is a new contract of sorts.

In the traditional parenting organization, the contract is very simple:managers have most of the responsibility, authority and accountability,and employees do what they’re told. Managers have most of the rights but also most of the responsibilities. Employees have few rights but they also have few responsibilities. It’s actually a fair set up; just not very effective.

In the team-based, partnering organization, the roles are more balanced.The agreement has to be that people have a right to be involved in matters that affect them. That doesn’t mean you decide everything with a vote. It means that people who will be affected by a decision should have a chance to influence the decision. But in return for these increased rights for employees, they need to agree to make decisions in the best interest of the organization. Now they are as responsible for the health of the business as the managers used to be.

So the employees now have more responsibilities that come with this new empowerment. They have to be willing to learn about the business, think about how to make things better, and participate in decisions. If you want the additional rights that come with teams, you have to be a good team player. You can’t say, “It’s not my job,” or hope that the manager notices that something isn’t right. You’ll be called upon to do some things that may be uncomfortable like make an unpopular decision or give feedback to a fellow employee.

So teams are not so much about increasing empowerment as they are about pushing responsibility down into the organization. The pay-off for the employees is that they will have much more control and influence over their workplace.But this only works if they are willing to accept the responsibility and accountability that goes with it.

I’d like to spend some extra time talking about accountability because it is an area that causes many organizations difficulty. Many managers understand that they are supposed to hand off some of their authority to their employees, but they still feel completely accountable for what the team does. If the team makes a mistake, the manager fears he’ll be the one to get in trouble.And it’s true that a manager or team leader can’t abdicate their accountability.But they should share it.

I remember an executive in a computer department of a large corporation who just got chewed out by an angry customer. He felt it was his responsibility to take the heat and then go and talk to the team. I told him, no, that’s not his job. His job is to share the natural consequences of the team’s actions with the team. In other words, ask the customer to hold for a second,go and get the team, and make them listen to the customer’s anger. And then deal with it. At first, the executive thought this was an absurd suggestion.But he tried it. He called the customer back on the speaker phone and said he had the whole team in the room. Would the customer please tell the team exactly what he had told him. There was a long, uncomfortable silence. And then the conversation started. By the end of the meeting, they all agreed this was a much better way of dealing with the problem.

So the lesson is, don’t separate rights from responsibilities or authority from accountability. Empowerment doesn’t mean now you can do whatever you want. It means you’re all responsible for the organization’s performance and no one can hide behind “that’s not my job.”

Lesson 5: It’s not about one type of team; it’s about many forms of collaboration

Some organizations get so focused on having teams that they forget the whole point is to foster collaboration between interdependent parties. Just implementing high-performance or self-directed work teams in manufacturing,for example, can turn into an organization that is just as inflexible asa traditional, functional structure.

You will need to bring people together to collaborate in lots of ways for different purposes: to make a product, to learn from one another, to plan a strategy or coordinate resources, to design a new car, etc. In addition to work teams, you’ll need committees, management teams, task forces, problem solving teams and something called communities of practice which are people who come together primarily to learn from each other.

Think about how different each of these teams are from one another. A self-directed or high-performance work team has a set number of people who work together full time. A problem solving team may come together for a couple hours a week and disband after the problem is resolved. A project team may have core and non-core members who do entirely different tasks and as a result, it may be much more difficult to share leadership.

So you will need to use many different team types and it’s important to recognize that each team type will need different practices to be successful.In manufacturing, cross training facilitates the work of work teams but can be impractical in project work. Problem solving teams use a structured problem solving process whereas a new product development team may need a more flexible, creative process.

So as you encourage people to work together, don’t use one model of teamwork on all of the teams. A team of graphic designers had been formed to make a recommendation to management about the purchase of new computer equipment.The rest of the organization used PC’s but graphic artists are passionate about the Mac platform. By the time the client called us for help, the team had expended many months in emotional bickering and had gotten nowhere.

I discovered that their facilitator had used a typical total quality problem solving process: write a problem statement, analyze the problem, review possible options, develop a recommendation…. But framing this as a problem only fed the emotional fire. “The problem is management won’t listen to us,” was what they answered. But this was not a problem solving team; it was a task force. So I came in with a description of the team’s purpose, a picture of the analytical tools and tasks we’d need to complete,and a schedule. After five half-day meetings over a couple weeks, the team’s recommendations were complete and accepted by management.

So remember, don’t get stuck thinking about one particular team or form of collaboration. Instead, be clear about what the purpose is of bringing people together and then pick a collaborative structure and methods to support that purpose.

Lesson 6: It’s not new; it’s natural

The last lesson I want to leave you with is this: working in teams and collaborating is not new, it’s natural. In fact, I recently read a research report entitled, “High-Performance Teams, Lessons from the Pygmies.” I’m sure they didn’t hire a high-priced consultant to come to the jungle to tell them how to share leadership and foster trust.

And doing what comes naturally always takes less effort than working against it.

We think of “natural work” as having three levels:

  • Aligning work with the limits of nature
  • Aligning our organizations with the needs of human nature
  • Aligning individual jobs to take advantage of individual’s nature

Some of the most exciting work we’re doing involves aligning work with the needs of nature, this first level. It comes as no surprise that our societal and organizational practices are not environmentally sustainable.But some organizations are beginning to examine the strategic opportunities of moving in this direction. When you look at your organization through the lens of sustainability, you will find waste you hadn’t noticed before and according to the companies in the forefront, nothing has been more effective at charging up employees. And teams are an important part of pursuing this issue. Like all new initiatives, it requires bringing people together to find the opportunities.

Teams also contribute to the second level, aligning with the needs of human nature. We tend to think that we recently invented high-performance work teams, etc., but really what these teams do is bring work down to a level that humans are used to. It’s no accident that the ideal team size is roughly the same as the size of an extended family and that a comfortable organization or business units equates to primitive tribe sizes. And if you put any small group of people together with a clear task, they will tend to self-organize, trade off responsibilities based on their interests and skills, as well as share leadership based on the needs of the situation,just like self-directed work teams. We do this because it has been a common mode of working since caveman days.

Teams also contribute to the third level, individual differences. Ina traditional organization, we cram people into standardized job descriptions.But people are not standardized parts that you can plug in and pull outof the machine you call General Motors. Each of you brings unique talents,skills and interests. There may be parts of that job description that you like doing or a good at and others parts where you are not. In a team setting,you can trade off tasks, be more flexible in job assignments. So you get  the best of each person on the team, not the best and worst of each individual.

But for the last 100 years, we have worked hard to drive “natural work” out of organizations, in our quest for standardization and mass production. As our organizations grew into huge, multinational businesses,we borrowed an old organizational model from the military with generals and foot soldiers to try to manage them. Chains of command, hierarchies,narrow job classifications. These are all vestiges of the early industrial revolution. But now we’re in the knowledge age, where brains matter more than machines and equipment should serve the employee instead of the other way around.

As a society we are changing from thinking of organizations as machines to organizations as organisms. And we shift to this more natural approach,we will necessarily make our organizations better places for humans to be….Where you can reach your potential rather than be limited by a job description,where leadership is conferred based on competence rather than hierarchy, where organizations are rich networks of relationships rather than chains of command, and where work is about contributing to society, not just the financial bottom line. Working in teams is better in part because it is more natural. And when you align your organization with the needs and talents of human nature, you will get better performance because less energy is wasted trying to be something we are not.

You are people, not machines; creative problem solvers, not robots. Your contribution is in your brains and in your passion. Teams can release all that unused potential. And the collaboration they foster is a critical stepping stone to future improvements. Just remember these lessons: It’s not about teams, it’s about performance. Individuals don’t determine the performance level of an organization as much as the design of the organization. Teams have less to do with structural changes than they do management philosophy.
Employees should think less about being empowered and more about shouldering responsibility and accountability. There is not one type of team but many, so pick the best structure to achieve your purpose and then use the right technique that team demands. And finally, remember that teams are not new.
We are rediscovering natural patterns of working that were driven out during the industrial revolution.

I hope this next century will be the “natural revolution,” where we learn how to operate our organizations within the limits of nature and in alignment with the needs of human nature. Working should be about
contributing to society, an expression of your talents and gifts. And working in teams is one small piece of this picture.


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